The Truth About Boeing's Biggest Labor Union

CHICAGO TheStreet) - The International Association of Machinists has been demonized in the battle over Boeing's ( BA) alleged violation of labor law, but the truth is that the union often works side by side with Boeing and other companies where it represents workers.

In fact, last week, IAM President Tom Buffenbarger joined with the business jet industry -- which in recent years has also been demonized -- in a presentation to the International Trade Commission. IAM represents workers at Learjet, Hawker Beechcraft ( HBC), Learjet and Textron ( TXT) division Cessna.
Tom Buffenbarger

"We worked with IAM to promote a clear and accurate understanding of what business aviation is," said Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association. He noted that the business jet industry, centered in Wichita, Kan., produces aircraft that are exported throughout the world.

"It is an industry where the U.S. has long been a primary, if not the primary, builder," Bolen said. "And I think there is a clear sense in the business aviation community that the best way to create jobs in our industry is to promote business aviation."

It's just part of the work Buffenbarger does as president of the union, which has about 700,000 members, including about 400,000 active members and more than 100,000 aerospace workers. "You may think unions and the companies they represent company are at loggerheads all the time," Buffenbarger said, in an interview. "But do you know what really happens to the time between contracts?

At those times, he said, "you can't put a piece of paper between positions of the companies and the unions."

In fact, on multiple occasions, the union has helped Boeing too. The most notable recent case is in lobbying for the contract to build 179 tankers for the Air Force, at an estimated cost of $35 billion. The union was heavily involved in lobbying for Boeing to get the contract, rather than competitor Airbus.

"It's certainly true that the IAM helped us win our bid for the tanker contract, and it demonstrates that we can work together well and effectively when our interests are aligned," said Boeing spokesman Tim Healy. "We also work well with the union on a day-to-day basis, dealing with administering our contract and resolving grievances.

"Our challenge over the next 12 months is to find that same effectiveness in aligning our interests when we negotiate a new contract," Healy said.

At the moment, a dispute between Boeing and the IAM has become a cause célèbre, hijacked by politicians and right wing provocateurs and held up as an example of the evils of the union movement.

It is actually something far different and far more arcane: an alleged violation of labor law, one with a fairly simple and narrowly defined resolution.

In April, the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against Boeing, arguing that its decision to build a plant in Charleston, S.C., represented an illegal retaliation for a 2008 IAM strike. The plant opened in July and is building 787s. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act protects the right to strike, and as a corollary prohibits moving work in retaliation for strikes.

The general counsel's complaint is a first step that requires approval by the board itself and then, potentially, by the courts. Any remedy would apply to only three of the ten 787s Boeing intends to produce each month by 2014. By no means would it prevent Boeing from operating its Charleston plant, as has been frequently alleged.

The case appears destined to linger for years, winding its way through the NLRB process and then through the courts. Buffenbarger said the IAM is prepared to battle all the way to the Supreme Court, despite the court's apparent conservative leanings, the country's anti-labor climate and the hysteria surrounding the general counsel's complaint.

At the moment, "The economy is suffering and people are looking for scapegoats. And when Wall Street, corporate America and politicians look for scapegoats, they single out people who are not afraid to speak out and who are not docile," making the labor movement an obvious target, Buffenbarger said.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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